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  • Roots and Branches - Jewish Cemeteries in Poland: The Remnants

    Miriam Weiner

    Published Date : April-May 1991
    In August 1990 a group of American Jews travelled to Poland to visit ancestral towns and research family records in the Polish State Archives and the archives at Auschwitz.  Integral to the tour were evening speakers versed in the history and genealogy of each locality visited.  The speaker who unanimously touched hearts with his dedication and knowledge was Jan Jagielski, who for over 25 years has photographed Jewish cemeteries in small towns through-out Poland.  During his presentation, as tour members called out the names of their ancestral towns, Mr. Jagielski not only produced photographs from each place, but described the cemetery’s present condition.  He even drew small maps with directions on how to find individual cemeteries and who had the gate key.

    Mr. Jagielski is among a small group of dedicated Poles who work together to document the remnants of Jewish sites and monuments throughout Poland.  As a founding member (1981) of the Citizens Committee for the Protection and Preservation of Jewish Monuments, he is now conducting an extensive survey, sponsored in part by the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, of Jewish cemeteries in Poland, and has recently taken a new position with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.  Mr. Jagielski is also general editor of a series of guidebooks to Jewish Poland (Warsaw and Krakow are completed, with others to follow).  His home, a small, sparsely-furnished flat in Warsaw’s former Jewish quarter, is crowded with his extensive library of Judaica, thousands of photographs, and files of correspondence from around the world.

    Mr. Jagielski described his travels by bus or train to small towns to photograph Jewish cemeteries.  When he first began he saw Jewish monuments in terrible condition; many tombstones have now disappeared or been completely destroyed.  According to Mr. Jagielski, 130 Jewish cemeteries in Poland have 100 or more tomb-stones remaining.  In 40, monuments from the eighteenth century or before have survived, the oldest (in Breslaw) dated 1243.  On the site of many more Jewish cemeteries, however, one will now find office blocks, schools, stadiums, bus stations, or other structures.

    Fences and walls are now being built by the Committee to preserve the area, even if the stones have been removed, as in Radom where the group saw workers building a wall around the cemetery.  In Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, 150 tombstones from the early nineteenth century have been restored.  This project is ambitious when one considers that the cemetery contains 200,000 tombstones!  In Kozmin, schoolchildren are cleaning up the cemeteries and helping with preservation efforts.  In Lublin, 50 tombstones dating from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries were restored, but some have since been damaged.  In Opatow, about 20 monuments were retrieved from a river where they were thrown after the war, and have been placed in an unused section of the cemetery.  In Pinczow, pieces of old tombstones were rescued from ruined buildings and now form part of the wall surrounding an old synagogue.

    Financing for this work comes from the government (via the Polish lottery) and in donations from individuals and organizations throughout the world though not nearly enough for the rapidly deteriorating cemeteries that remain.  The Nissenbaum Family Foundation, established in 1985, has supported cemetery restoration in Praga, Kielce, Slubice, Buk, Sanok, Lodz and Krosno.

    Mr. Jagielski has several works in progress: he is working on a book with photographer Monika Krajewska on the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, and will edit a catalogue of Jewish cemeteries in Poland, with articles submitted by local historians.  Between trips to Polish cities and towns, Mr. Jagielski has traveled three times to Israel for meetings and research at Yad Vashem, the memorial and archive of the Holocaust.  In November 1990 he was a featured speaker at the International Conference on the Future of Jewish Monuments held at Hebrew Union College in New York.

    Asked why he was working on so many projects, Mr. Jagielski replied, “If not me, who? The cemeteries are dying as are the people.  It is a tragic part of Polish Jewry.”

    Miriam Weiner, C.G., is a columnist and lecturer specializing in Jewish genealogy and Holocaust research:. She co-edited The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy, volume one of which was recently published by Jason Aronson, Inc., and also coordinates “Routes to Roots” genealogical tours Inc. ISRAM Travel in New York.  She has prepared a beginner’s guide (55 pages, $12.50) on how to research family history, with charts, a list of archives and libraries, bibliography, maps, family group sheets, etc.  Information about this and other publications can he obtained by sending a SASE to her at 136 Sandpiper Key, Secaucus, NJ 07094.

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